Assimilation and Federal Indian Education
Assimilation and Federal Indian Education
The Mission Schools. Prior to the 1870s the federal government had largely neglected Indian education, with Congress allocating no more than $130,000 annually to “civilize” the Native Americans. However, mission schools had long been established by dedicated Catholic and Episcopal educators. William Chapman, director of the Episcopal school on the Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, maintained that church training was infinitely better for the “naturally devout” Indian children than government education. Only a small fraction of the Indian population was served by these missionaries, but tribal leaders were unanimous in their support for the mission schools.
Remolding Indian Values. Although missionaries and some reformers were convinced that Indians could be “civilized,” many whites believed that Indians were incapable of progress. Despite this prevailing sentiment, the federal government in 1879 began a plan to remold Indian culture, or what was referred to in documents of the day as “remolding his system of values.” Congress implemented a policy of total
assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream society, expressing faith that Indians who were properly educated could adopt the norms and values of the dominant white culture. American leaders of the post-Reconstruction era were so sure of the supremacy of their ideals and dreams that they dismissed any other cultural values as inferior. Armed with nearly evangelistic fervor for reforming Indians, federally funded educators set to work.
Off-Reservation Boarding Schools. Richard Henry Pratt, a U.S. Army captain, founded Carlisle Indian School in 1879. This large industrial training institute, housed in a deserted army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, served as a model for the twenty-five other boarding schools that opened by the turn of the century. Captain Pratt’s “acculturation policy” called for cutting the student’ hair, changing their names, and teaching them new sports and new manners. Congress hailed the success of Carlisle by appropriating large sums for expansion of Pratt’s model, and industrial training schools were founded away from reservations at sites such as Forest Grove, Oregon (1880); Albuquerque (1884); Chilocco, Oklahoma (1884); Santa Fé (1890 — later renamed the Institute of American Indian Arts); and Phoenix (1890). Despite the rapid expansion of the industrial boarding schools, many reformers criticized the programs. Ironically, their objections were not to the assimilationist nature of the training. Instead, opponents argued that the schools trained too few youths at too great an expense. Their greatest objection, however, was that far too many of the Indians who attended the schools failed to maintain their new white identity after graduation; as critics claimed, these students “returned to the blanket.”
Reservation Day Schools. Indian students educated at the boarding schools faced significant problems upon returning to the reservations. They were often ridiculed by their peers who had not left home, and more important, their industrial training was of little use on reservations in remote rural locations. These educated youth, therefore, became the first victims of the “either/or” policy of assimilation as their training forced them to choose either the culture of the white man or the culture of the Indian—there was no compromise. Critics of the off-reservation boarding schools succeeded in establishing reservation boarding and day schools near the end of the century. These schools were not only much cheaper to run, but they were also more acceptable to parents, who resented having their children forcibly removed to fill the quotas of off-reservation schools. Although these schools were closer to home and allowed more contact with family, the federally funded programs maintained the same assimilationist philosophy as the off-reservation schools, and some parents believed that
education such as this “represented the most dangerous of all attacks on basic Indian values, the one most likely to succeed in the end because it is aimed at children.”
Margaret Szasz, Education and the American Indian (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), pp. 8-13;